What does 1 Corinthians 14 mean?
Chapter Commentary:
Paul's instructions to the Corinthians about spiritual gifts began in chapter 12 and concludes here. Between them, the small-but-powerful chapter 13 contains Paul's warning that spiritual gifts are useless if not practiced with love and he included an action-packed definition of what he meant by "love."

Paul begins this chapter with another command to "pursue love," meaning to ardently work to develop that characteristic. By contrast, he tells the Corinthians to desire spiritual gifts, since they cannot be worked for or earned, but must be received as a gift from God's Spirit. In particular, he tells them to want the gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:1).

Paul never dismisses or discounts the gift of speaking in tongues, but his instructions seem to indicate that the gift was being misused in the Corinthian church services. From the context, we might imagine that many people were speaking in tongues at once with nobody interpreting what was said. Paul shows that the exercise of the gift of prophecy in the church is superior to the use of the gift of tongues if nobody can interpret. Apparently, tongues were being used mostly for praying aloud to God in unknown languages. Paul agrees that this may be encouraging to the one who prays, but it is useless in the church service. If nobody can understand what is being said, the church is not being built up (1 Corinthians 14:1–17).

The gift of prophecy, on the other hand, involved revelation from God to an individual for the purpose of communicating that message to the church. When that gift was exercised, everyone in the room benefited from it (1 Corinthians 14:18–19).

Beyond that, practically speaking, Paul said that it is jarring to listen to others speak in tongues without an interpreter present. It becomes mere noise. Worse, it might scare off unbelievers, driving them more deeply into unbelief. Unbelievers exposed to the gift of prophecy, on the other hand, may fall under the conviction about their sin and come to faith in Christ, recognizing God at work among the Christians (1 Corinthians 14:20–25).

Paul follows this teaching with specific commands about how the Corinthians should conduct their services. He describes it as a series of voluntary presentations, each in turn, one at a time. One might bring a hymn, another a lesson, another a revelation from God by means of the gift of prophecy. Paul says those with the gift of tongues are free to speak, as well, but only if someone with the gift of interpretation of tongues—including even the speaker—is available. In a similar way, those exercising the gift of prophecy should be followed by a discussion among those with the gift of discerning spirits to confirm or deny that the prophet's message was from God (Acts 17:11; 1 John 4:1). Only two or three tongues-speakers or prophets should contribute each service, with the prophets yielding the floor when another received a revelation from God (1 Corinthians 14:26–33).

Finally, Paul raises the issue of women's participation in church services. He commands that wives, specifically, remain silent and save questions about the proceedings for their husbands when they are at home. Perhaps, these restrictions have more to do with the marriage relationship than the role of women in a service; Paul earlier in the letter allowed women to offer prayers or prophecies if their heads were properly covered (1 Corinthians 11:2–16). The purpose here appears to be similar: to not give a conflicting or confusing message (1 Corinthians 14:34–35).

Paul concludes the chapter by stating again his two essential principles for worship services. Christians in a given congregation cannot claim special privileges or knowledge over other believers. All are subject to the same tests of truth and love. Everything must be done in an orderly and peaceful way, reflecting God's orderly character. And only that which builds up the church should be included, even if some people must keep the expression of their spiritual gifts to themselves (1 Corinthians 14:36–40).
Verse Context:
First Corinthians 14:1–25 describes why the gift of prophecy is superior to the gift of tongues in church services, especially when nobody with the gift of interpreting tongues is available. Prophecy benefits everyone in the room with a revelation from God. Praying in a tongue, when nobody can interpret, only benefits the one praying. In fact, displaying the gift of tongues without interpretation may do more harm than good—it generates confusion and division. In contrast, the use of prophecy provides the opportunity for unbelievers to hear from God, be convicted about sin, and come to faith in Christ and genuine worship.
First Corinthians 14:26–40 includes specific instructions to the Corinthians on an orderly worship service. These meetings should reflect the character of God. Everyone should have an opportunity to bring a hymn, a lesson, a prophetic revelation from God, and even to speak in a tongue if someone is able to interpret. Each must happen one at a time, in turn, and only two or three tongues-speakers or prophets should contribute during a single service. Wives must remain silent and be in submission to their husbands. Only that which builds up the church should be included.
Chapter Summary:
Paul encourages the Corinthians to desire the gift of prophecy, especially, among the other gifts. He shows why its use in the church service is superior to the use of the gift of tongues if nobody is available to interpret. Prophecy benefits everyone; praying in tongues with nobody to interpret benefits only the speaker. Only two or three tongues-speakers should contribute to any service, and only then one at a time and followed by interpreters. The same applies to prophecy and the gift of discerning spirits. Orderliness and building up the church are guiding principles for any worship meeting. Modern churches are divided on the extent to who which these gifts are given, or should be practiced.
Chapter Context:
1 Corinthians 14 concludes Paul's teaching on the spiritual gifts begun in chapter 12. Between them, chapter 13 declared that Christlike love matters most of all. The gift of prophecy is better than the display of the gift of tongues in worship services unless someone with the gift of interpreting tongues is available. Even then, only those things which build up the church should be included in any service, and everything should be done in an orderly way, reflecting the character of God. The final two chapters of this letter discuss the resurrection of Christ and Paul's concluding remarks.
Book Summary:
First Corinthians is one of the more practical books of the New Testament. Paul writes to a church immersed in a city associated with trade, but also with corruption and immorality. These believers are struggling to properly apply spiritual gifts and to resist the ungodly practices of the surrounding culture. Paul's letter gives instructions for real-life concerns such as marriage and spirituality. He also deals with the importance of unity and gives one of the Bible's more well-known descriptions of love in chapter 13.
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